Episode 103. Annie Besant and Mid-19th Century London

Delve into the various aspects of Annie Besant’s life, from her tumultuous childhood and early marriage to the beginning of her transformation into a passionate activist and orator.

As we follow the footsteps of Annie Besant, we’ll also paint a vivid picture of mid-century London, a city rife with political tensions, groundbreaking discoveries, and social reforms. We’ll discuss the key events that shaped the city during this transformative period and examine how the city’s unique atmosphere influenced Annie’s life and work.

From the bustling streets of London to the spiritual realms of Theosophy, Annie Besant’s story is truly an inspiring tale of resilience, courage, and a relentless pursuit of justice. Through her activism and tireless work, she left an indelible mark on history and set the stage for many social reforms we enjoy today.

So, let’s embark on this fascinating journey together, as we uncover the untold story of Annie Besant and mid-century London. Stay tuned for the first of a two-part adventure that will take you through the highs and lows of an extraordinary life and the incredible city that shaped it.

Hazel Baker is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified  CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain(Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7). Het Rampjaar 1672Afl. 2: Vijand Engeland and Arte.fr Invitation au Voyage, À Chelsea, une femme qui trompe énormément.

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Today, we’ll dive into the life of Annie Besant, a social activist, spiritual teacher, and political leader whose contributions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries significantly impacted various fields. From her involvement in the labour movement to her work with the Theosophical Society and her advocacy for women’s suffrage and self-rule in Ireland and India, Besant left an indelible mark on London and the world.

In this episode, we’ll focus on Besant’s time in London, exploring her early years, her challenges, and the experiences that shaped her life and work.

London Stereoscopic Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I. Introduction

Annie Besant’s story is one of courage, resilience, and an unwavering commitment to social, spiritual, and political change. Her life and work continue to inspire us today, reminding us of the power of one individual to make a lasting impact on the world.

Annie Besant was a social activist, spiritual teacher, and political leader who significantly contributed to various fields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Besant was involved in the labour movement, fighting for better working conditions for women and children. She was also a prominent member of the Theosophical Society, promoting spiritualism and Eastern religious philosophies. Besant was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage and self-rule for Ireland and India. Her contributions to social, spiritual, and political issues have impacted London and the world.

Besant’s time in London was marked by her tireless efforts to improve the lives of marginalized communities, promote spiritual and philosophical understanding, and fight for political change.Iss in this episode I will be focussing on her time spent in London.


Annie Besant’s early years

Annie Wood was born on 1 October 1847 into an uppermiddle-class family at 2 Fish Street Hill in the City of London, right by the Monument to the Great Fire of London. In her autobiography, she states, ‘I was born in London, ‘within the sound of Bow Bells, ‘ which would make her a Cockney. 

She was the daughter of William Burton Persse Wood (1816–1852) and Emily Roche Morris (died 1874). Her father was an Englishman who had lived in Dublin, attained a medical degree, and attended Trinity College Dublin. 

Annie claimed the Woods, her father’s side of the family, ‘developed more in the direction of brains’. Her great uncle was Matthew Wood, a Worshipful Company of Fishmongers member, who had risen to the position of Prime Warden. He was also a member of the Court of Aldermen in the City of London, having served as Sheriff in 1809 and as Lord Mayor of London from 1815 to 1817. 

During his tenure as Lord Mayor, he became popular by encouraging resistance to unpopular government measures and showing great determination to suppress the London underworld in December 1816. As Mayor, he played a key role in dispersing the Spa Fields riot, presenting a petition to the Regent on behalf of the roters, and expressing their demands for popular representation and reform.

She had always held a certain grievance over her birthplace, London, as she claimed in her autobiography that three-quarters of her blood and all of her heart belonged to Ireland. Annie Besant’s mother was the second daughter in a large family that continued to grow as their financial resources dwindled. As a result, Annie’s mother was taken in by a maiden aunt, whose influence would have a lasting impact on both her and Annie’s characters. Like many Irish individuals from families in decline, this maiden aunt took great pride in her ancestry, tracing her lineage back to the so-called “kings.”

Her esteemed forebears were the “seven kings of France”—the “Milesian kings”—and their impressive genealogy was prominently displayed on a parchment, which adorned the mantelpiece in the modest drawing room of their descendant’s home. This connection to a regal past was a constant reminder of their family’s once-great status, shaping the values and aspirations of both Annie Besant and her mother. Annie describes how her mother, when a child ‘with her captivating grey Irish eyes and abundant curls of raven black hair, would often weep in remorseful shame over her perceived unworthiness. She harboured a vague notion that her royal, albeit imaginary, ancestors would look down upon her delicate, rosebud-like self as entirely undeserving of their disreputable majesties’ esteem.’

Annie’s earliest personal memory is of a house and garden they lived in when she was three and four years of age, situated in Grove Road, St. John’s Wood, right behind Lord’s Cricket Ground. She remembered her mother sweeping up around the dinner table in preparation for her husband’s return and Annie’s brother, who was two years older, and she watched ‘for papa’; the loving welcome, the game of romps that always preceded the dinner of the elder folks. 


Annie’s escape from poverty

The values and expectations influenced Annie’s childhood were passed down from her mother, who was deeply affected by her family’s history and sense of honour. Annie’s mother instilled a strong aversion to anything unworthy, petty, or mean. For her, the faintest hint of dishonour was to be evaded at any cost, and she taught Annie the importance of maintaining a brave front and a spotless reputation in the face of adversity.

This early training in dignity and self-respect would prove to be both a challenge and a source of strength for Annie throughout her turbulent and highly scrutinised public life. The emphasis on personal integrity and honour intensified her distress when facing public criticism and slander. Still, it also fostered an unwavering sense of self-worth, enabling her to stand strong against her detractors.

This deeply ingrained pride shielded Annie from degradation and despair, even when ostracised from her family, friends, and society. She remained grateful to her mother’s influence, who was loving, gentle, proud, and pure – an ideal role model for Annie during her formative years.

Annie’s life took a dramatic turn when her father passed away when she was five. Annie writes of her distinct memory of the events leading to his death was recounted by her beloved mother. He had always maintained an affinity for the profession he had trained for. With many medical friends, he would occasionally accompany them on their hospital rounds or join them in the dissection room. As fate would have it, while dissecting the body of a person who had succumbed to rapid consumption, her father cut his finger on the edge of the breastbone. The cut failed to heal promptly, and the finger became swollen and inflamed. “I would have that finger off, Wood, if I were you,” remarked one of the surgeons a day or two later, observing the wound’s condition. However, the others dismissed the idea, and her father, initially inclined to undergo the amputation, was convinced to “leave Nature alone.”

Around mid-August 1852, her father became soaked while riding on the top of an omnibus, which led to a severe cold that “settled on his chest.” ‘One of the most eminent doctors of the day, as skilled as he was brusque in manner, was called to examine him. He carefully inspected him, listened to his lungs, and left the room, followed by her mother. “Well?” she inquired, only slightly concerned about the answer, except for how it might trouble her husband to be confined at home. “You must keep up his spirits,” was the thoughtless response. “He has galloping consumption; he won’t be with you for more than six weeks.” Her mother staggered back and collapsed on the floor. Half an hour later, she was back at her husband’s side, never to leave it for more than ten minutes at a time, day or night, until he lay with closed eyes in the eternal sleep of death. Her mother locked herself in her room overnight, and when she emerged the next day, her raven black hair had turned white.

Her father’s death left the family with barely any means to survive. Her resilient mother took up the responsibility of providing for the family by operating a boarding house for boys attending Harrow School. Despite her mother’s efforts, she could not fully support Annie and, as a result, persuaded her friend Ellen Marryat to take care of her. Miss Marryat was the favourite sister of Captain Marryat, the famous novelist, a contemporary and an acquaintance of Charles Dickens. Annie describes Ellen Marryat as a maiden lady of large means. 

Under Marryat’s care, Annie received a well-rounded education. Marryat taught them everything recitation, reading aloud in English, French, and later, German. Everything except music, for which she had a master who taught composition.

Not only did Annie learn from the knowledge Myatt imparted but also from the love of learning she instilled in her. It remained a constant motivation for further study for Annie. She was instilled with a deep sense of obligation towards society and an unwavering belief in the potential of independent women. This nurturing environment enabled Annie to develop her intellect and character, preparing her for the challenges she would face later in life.

As a young woman, Annie had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe, broadening her horizons and exposing her to diverse cultures and perspectives. At 14 she went to Dusseldorf as Annie wrote: ‘For some months we had been diligently studying German, for Miss Marryat thought it wise that we should know a language fairly well before we visited the country of which it was the native tongue. We had been trained also to talk French daily during dinner, so we were not quite “helpless foreigners” ‘ They took a steamboat from St Katherine’s dock.

During the winter of 1862-63 Miss Marryat was in London, and for a few months, Annie remained there with her, attending the admirable French classes.


What was London like in 1847?

In 1847, London was a city of stark contrasts and profound transformation. As the heart of the British Empire, it was a bustling metropolis teeming with innovation, commerce, and cultural exchange. Yet, beneath the veneer of progress, the city faced a myriad of social, economic, and public health challenges that would shape the lives of its inhabitants and leave an indelible mark on the young Annie Besant. The rapidly growing population, driven by the Industrial Revolution, led to overcrowded living conditions, widespread poverty, and rampant disease. Amidst this complex urban landscape, Annie was raised and exposed to the stark realities of inequality and social injustice. These formative experiences would later ignite her passion for activism and fuel her determination to challenge the status quo, ultimately shaping her thoughts and actions as a prominent social reformer.

London emerged as the world’s most magnificent city in the Victorian era. As Britain underwent the Industrial Revolution, its capital simultaneously enjoyed the rewards and faced the challenges that came with it. In 1800, the population of Greater London stood at around one million people, a figure that would dramatically increase to 6.5 million by 1900. The city saw growth in upscale areas like Regent and Oxford streets in the west, while new docks in the east reinforced London’s position as a global trading hub.

One of the most significant factors contributing to London’s expansion was the arrival of the railroad in the 1830s. This development displaced thousands of residents and prompted a population shift from the City to suburban areas.

The explosive growth and global trade dominance came at a steep cost, marked by unimaginable squalor and grime. Personal hygiene and clean clothing are low on the list of priorities. The odour of unwashed bodies in packed, confined spaces would have been suffocating.

The Victorian solution to addressing the needs of the poor and destitute was the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834. Before this legislation, the responsibility of supporting the impoverished fell upon individual parishes. The new law mandated that parishes collaborate and establish regional workhouses where those in need could seek assistance. However, the workhouse was essentially a penal institution for the poor, where civil liberties were stripped away, families were torn apart, and human dignity was crushed.

The living conditions and treatment within these workhouses were often so abysmal that many truly impoverished went to extreme lengths to avoid seeking relief there. Rather than offering a compassionate solution to poverty, the New Poor Law further marginalised the underprivileged and reinforced the social stigma associated with poverty. This system perpetuated the harsh realities faced by the poor in Victorian society, creating a cycle of desperation and struggle that was difficult to escape.

Wealthy and impoverished individuals intermingled in the congested city streets. Street sweepers strove to clear the roads of manure, a byproduct of the numerous horse-drawn vehicles. Following the Stage Carriages Act of 1832, the hackney cab was progressively replaced by the omnibus as the primary mode of transportation within the city. By 1900, 3,000 horse-drawn buses transported 500 million passengers annually (Porter, 1994, p. 225). A traffic count conducted in Cheapside and London Bridge in 1850 recorded a thousand vehicles per hour traversing these areas during the daytime (Welsh, 1971, p. 21). This contributed to an immense volume of manure that needed to be cleared from the streets. During rainy weather, straw was spread across walkways, storefronts, and carriages to help absorb the mud and moisture.

The city’s countless chimneys spewed coal smoke, causing soot to accumulate everywhere. In several parts of the city, raw sewage ran along the gutters that poured into the Thames. Street merchants loudly advertise their goods, adding to the cacophony of urban sounds. Pickpockets, prostitutes, inebriated individuals, beggars, and vagrants contribute to the vibrant, chaotic scene.

English journalist and sociologist James Mayhew estimated that during the 1850s, around 12,000 costermongers, or street sellers, made their living on the streets of London in his book London Labour and the London Poor. These enterprising individuals sold various products, including fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, pies, muffins, and various other items. Typically, costermongers would start their day early in the morning, purchasing goods from London’s bustling markets, such as Billingsgate Fish Market, Covent Garden, or Borough Market. They would negotiate for the best possible prices, using their “stock money.”

Once they acquired their merchandise, these street sellers would transport them throughout the city using rented barrows. As they navigated the crowded streets, they would hawk their products to passersby, providing a vital service to the residents of London. In doing so, costermongers became an essential part of the city’s commercial landscape, contributing to its vibrant atmosphere and ensuring that goods were accessible to people from all walks of life.

Temperatures were to the extreme. The heat near the fire is overwhelmingly intense, while the cold away from it chills to the bone. The main streets are dimly illuminated at night by weak gas lamps. Side streets and less important roads may be left in complete darkness, requiring the hiring of link boys to guide travellers to their destinations. Indoors, a solitary candle or oil lamp battles the darkness, gradually causing the ceilings to become blackened.


Married life

Though she was raised as an Anglican, Annie would eventually renounce her faith, likely as a result of her personal experiences and evolving worldview. This decision would mark another turning point in her life, setting the stage for her future pursuits and contributions to society.

Annie wrote about her mother in her autobiography: ‘I have never met a woman more selflessly devoted to those she loved, more passionately contemptuous of all that was mean or base, more keenly sensitive on every question of honour, more iron in will, more sweet in tenderness, than the mother who made my girlhood sunny as dreamland, who guarded me, until my marriage, from every touch of pain that she could ward off or bear for me, who suffered more in every trouble that touched me in later life than I did myself.’

At Christmas 1865, a little mission church had been opened in a very poor district of Clapham. Annie’s grandfather’s house was nearby, in Albert Square. She and a favourite aunt dedicated much time and effort to this little church. At Easter, 1866, they adorned it with spring flowers, such as dewy primroses, fragrant violets, and the yellow bells of wild daffodils, bringing immense joy to the impoverished who Annie comments that many of the little London children had never seen a flower before. It was here that Annie encountered the Rev. Frank Besant, a young Cambridge man who had recently taken orders and was serving the small mission church as a deacon. 

During the summer of 1866, Annie became engaged to the young clergyman she had met at the mission church earlier that year, despite their limited acquaintance. They had spent a week together as the only two young people in a small group of holiday-makers and had naturally become companions during their walks, rides, and drives. Just an hour or two before he departed, the young Rev. Frank Besant asked Annie to marry him, assuming her consent, given their close companionship. This assumption might have been fair for those who considered all men potential husbands. He was mistaken about Annie, whose thoughts lay in entirely different directions.

At the age of 19, with a true devotion to Christ and a desire to serve she did what everyone has held her was the obvious and also respectable thing to do. During the autumn of 1867, Annie became officially engaged and married fourteen months later at 20. At one point in between, she attempted to break off the engagement, but when she broached the subject with her mother, her mother’s pride fiercely opposed the idea. Her mother questioned whether her daughter would break her word and dishonour herself by jilting a man she had committed to marry. Annie’s mother could be resolute when it came to matters of honour, and Annie, who had always been accustomed to yielding to her mother’s wishes, complied with her request except regarding religious matters. As a result, Annie married in the winter of 1867, with what she described as no more understanding of the marital relationship than a four-year-old child.

Annie’s sheltered life, free from any knowledge of evil and protected from pain and anxiety, left her unprepared for married life and defenceless against a harsh awakening. Reflecting on her experiences, she concluded that it is a grave mistake to raise a girl to womanhood in ignorance of life’s duties and burdens, only for her to face them for the first time without the familiar support and refuge of her mother’s love. While “perfect innocence” might be a beautiful attribute, it is also dangerous, and a young woman should know good and evil before she leaves the sanctuary of her mother’s love. Many unhappy marriages can be traced back to the beginning, marked by the terrible shock to a young girl’s sensitivity, modesty, pride, and feelings of helplessness, confusion, and fear.

She writes about the inequality of access to the world. Having been exposed to broader experiences through public school, college, or the outside world, men might struggle to comprehend the extent of such childlike ignorance in some girls. Nonetheless, this ignorance was a reality for at least some girls, and no mother should allow her daughter to enter into the marriage bond without first removing the blindfold.

Annie writes in her autobiography: “Looking back over twenty-five years, I feel a profound pity for the girl standing at that critical point of life, so utterly, hopelessly ignorant of all that marriage meant, so filled with impossible dreams, so unfitted for the rôle of wife… All my eager, passionate enthusiasm, so attractive to men in a young girl, were doubtless incompatible with “the solid comfort of a wife,” and I must have been inexpressibly tiring to the Rev. Frank Besant.”


Annie’s Early Writing Career

In 1868, Annie made her first serious attempts at writing. She wrote a series of short stories that were rather lightweight, as well as a more ambitious work titled “The Lives of the Black Letter Saints.” For those unfamiliar with ecclesiastical terminology, the Church of England’s calendar features various Saints’ Days; some are Red Letter Days, printed in red and have designated services, while others are Black Letter Days, printed in black without specific services. She thought writing a sketch about the saint’s life associated with each Black Letter Day would be interesting. She began gathering historical and legendary books to compile her “facts.” The ultimate fate of this book remains unknown.

The short stories, however, experienced more success. She submitted the first one to the Family Herald and, several weeks later, received a letter containing a cheque for thirty shillings. Despite earning considerable money through her later writing, the sheer joy of that first payment remained unmatched. It was the first money she had ever earned, and the pride in earning it was amplified by the pride of authorship. The thrill of having something of her own to give was soon dampened when she learned that the money was not really hers, as English law dictated that all a married woman’s earnings belonged to her husband.

Over time, she earned a few pounds for stories published in the same journal. The Family Herald had a unique practice of paying its contributors upon acceptance of their work, whether or not it was printed immediately. Encouraged by her modest successes, she began writing a novel, which took a significant amount of time to complete. Although the Family Herald ultimately rejected it, she received a kind note suggesting she write a novel of “purely domestic interest”, which would likely be accepted if it met their standards. However, she was deeply engaged in theological doubts by that point and never managed to write that novel.

In January 1869, Annie gave birth to her first child, a healthy boy. In August of the next year, Annie gave birth to a girl but her health was failing. In 1871 both children caught whooping cough, and Annie worried that slight Mabel would not survive. For months Annie herself was ill; with headaches, taking pills and opium to combat the pain. It was a dark time in her life describing herself as a ‘bewildered child-woman, beaten down by the cyclone of doubt and misery.’ It was a time when her physical crisis was over she decided on her line of action. She resolved to take Christianity as it had been taught in the Churches, and carefully and thoroughly examine its dogmas one by one.

The family moved to an agricultural village by the name of Sibsey, in Lincolnshire. It was here during months of her suffering anxity and distress where she engaged in practical parish work, caring for the sick, and attempting to improve the lives of the poor. The movement among agricultural labourers, spurred by the energy and devotion of Joseph Arch, was beginning to gain attention in the fens, and she strongly sympathised with the labourers’ demands, as she was familiar with their living conditions. Annie was horrified to discover a cottage with four generations living in one room—the great-grandfather and his wife, the unmarried grandmother, the unmarried mother, and the young child; three male lodgers completed the group of eight people crammed into the small, poorly ventilated space. Other cottages were in such disrepair that rain poured through their broken roofs, making rheumatism and ague constant companions for their occupants.

How could she not sympathise with any organisation aiming to improve the lives of these people? However, the Agricultural Labourers’ Union faced strong opposition from the farmers, who refused to employ anyone affiliated with the union. One example involved a young married man with two small children who attended a union meeting and talked about it when he returned home. Unable to find work in the surrounding area, he became desperate and turned to alcohol. Visiting his cottage, which consisted of a single room and a lean-to, she found his wife suffering from fever, holding their fever-stricken baby, and the second child lying dead on the bed. The wife explained that they were starving and had no other place for the dead child until the coffin arrived. That night, the desperate man, his sick wife and child, and the deceased child all shared the same bed.

Annie had an enquiring spirit and she wanted answers but was frustrated by the narrowness of a married woman’s life in a remote country Village she worried she worried about human suffering about Christ’s punishment about Hell by reading liberal theologians, she managed to ease herself out of the hard old evangelical belief she had been brought up in in but the respite was only temporary. One day she locked herself in the church and, feeling rather foolish climbed the pulpit to try out her speaking voice what she had to say surprised even herself she knew then, after hearing the words and feeling her heart beat so vigorously that she couldn’t go back to the life expected of her. A vicar’s wife was expected to be entirely supportive of her husband. The conditions of the poor and the long and distressing illness of her own child undermined her belief in the justice of life. In addition her husband appears to be a rather a brute. Her marriage was failing, and she began to lose her faith. Annie’s views shifted towards anti-religious beliefs, and tensions in their relationship escalated, ultimately resulting in legal separation in 1873 and at the age of 26 Annie moved back to London and that is where next week’s episode shall begin.


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Further Reading:

Annie Besant Autobiography: Annie Besant Autobiography


Birth Control in the Shadow of Empire: The Trials of Annie Besant, 1877–1878 Mytheli Sreenivas

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